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Statistics published by CNNIC in June 2012 say that there are 538m internet users in mainland China. Among them, 428m use search engines, 273m take part in microblogs (Weibo), and 209m shop online.
Search, apparently, tops the list of most popular online activities in China, just as it does in Western countries.
What about social media in China though? Do search engines pick up the social signals as well? And how can marketers learn from that?
In this article, I will show you the answers together with all the examples that support them.
Some people believe that search is not sufficient for us because the information provided by search engines is not timely enough as it is published after actual incidents.
Social media, on the other hand, allows instant messages. The contents published on social media are considered as the origin of thoughts when the incidents happen, and are regarded to be more powerful in influencing people.
In terms of online marketing, given that search engines pick up the signals from social media (crawl and analyse social media content) that have more power to influence people, marketers certainly want to not only feed their customers all the relevant information to facilitate their decision-making process, but also influence their decisions.
That is exactly what social integrated with search is for. In fact, it has become a trend. We have seen Google updated its algorithm to index the information more socially relevant.
So what about in China?
Pay to be 'organic'
Let us examine Google.CN first. As you can see from the screenshot below, Google.CN has included the “Best Answer” of Baidu Zhidao (the synonym of Yahoo! Answer) in the Search Engine Result Page’s (SERP) snippets.
I consider this inclusion of Baidu Zhidao’s user-generated content as a step for Google.CN moving into social relevancy.
As for Baidu, before we go into the discussion of Baidu’s search-social integration, let us talk about the Baidu search first. I always say Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for Baidu is both easy and difficult at the same time.
To illustrate what I meant, I would like to draw your attention to the following screenshot of a Baidu’s SERP for the search query “Chanel”.
With a SERP like the above, it is almost paradise for advertisers! I used to call it the “SERP Take Over” and now I officially term it the “Pseudo Organic.” You can pay for (almost) everything to be included in the organic search result.
As you can see, most of the “results” listed on Baidu’s SERP were either the paid advertisements in the third-party media or contents of Baidu’s own media such as Baidu Baike, Baidu Open, and Baidu News.
Chanel’s official website got listed twice, and the top rank went to the Chanel advertisement at Baidu Brand Zone and was listed again in the third position. This was the effect of Pseudo Organic. As for the second position, it was Chanel’s Sina Weibo.
In fact, it was the only social media content being listed in the SERP.
Play smart with Baidu proprietary content
So, is Pseudo Organic good or bad? Before we judge, let us see my second example.
This time I made a search query with a person name, Kai-Fu Lee, the former CEO of Google China. Here is a side-by-side comparison of Google.CN and Baidu’s SERP for “Kai-Fu Lee”.
I am actually quite happy with the result, in which I see Baidu handled the SERP even better than Google.CN. For the people search (I believe that it is not limited to people search), you clearly see that Baidu Baike (Wiki of Baidu) was predominantly listed by both Chinese search engines as the top result.
And then both search engines also included various Weibo sites such as Sina Weibo and QQ Weibo. Baidu displayed a richer layout than Google.CN. After trying several times for searching different person, they all showed consistent results.
What does it imply for marketing?
Brands that are associated with people and legacy should use all this information for long tail engagement in China.
Now look at my third example shown on the screenshot below, both Google.CN and Baidu once again listed Baidu Baike in the number one position after I made a search query with the Chinese name of “Karl Lagerfeld”.
Baidu even ranked all its proprietary contents (with a blue icon) over the others. You also can find brand mention for Chanel in the snippets on both SERPs. Search marketers always talk about head and tail engagement.
In this example, I just demonstrated how we should play smart with the search engines’ SERP characteristics for our SEO on-page tactics in China. You must use the Baidu proprietary content.
Baidu defines social signals differently
In terms of social inclusion, unlike the Google US version that has massively integrated with the Knowledge Graph, Twitter, Facebook, and of course the Google+, Google.CN and Baidu are still slow to follow suit.
Previously at a local SEO conference held in Xiamen China, Baidu’s engineer openly said that social signals in Baidu were picked up based on relevancy, time, and the content of the search query. Baidu’s algorithm will determine if any social content should be inserted in the SERP after analysing the search intent of the query.
I see Baidu defines social content differently from Google. This is not the content that we usually see in the typical social media such as social networking sites, blogs, or microblogs. Instead, it is the user-generated content of Baidu’s own media that are given a certain weight in the ranking algorithm.
Search engines leave out social profiles
Let me show you some evidences (shown in the table below) to support my view. I have kept tracking the Robots.txt for two China’s popular social networking sites, Renren.com and Kaixin001.com, since May of 2011.
Both Renren.com and Kaixin001.com have disallowed the search engines to crawl the user profile pages. User profiles essentially are the root of the social graph. If search engines cannot crawl social profiles, it should in theory affect the “social” relevancy in the SERP’s inclusion.
Moreover, let us do the maths. The combined number of users of Renren.com and Kaixin001.com was around 330m at Q1 of 2012. If each user generated two pages of content, then we are talking about 660m content pages.
I used the search engine’s site command (it's best to use a webmaster tool, but without one, site command was the best handy way to do this analysis) to run an estimation of the number of social content pages in Renren and Kaixin001 that have been indexed by the Chinese search engines.
Google.CN and Baidu combined reported approximately 150m URLs. To compensate the drop off caused by the site command, I added 30% to the result and got approximate 195 – 200m URLs. Then I took this search engine inclusion (195 – 200m) to compare the assumed user-generated contents of Renren.com and Kaixin001.com (660m).
Obviously, the difference here implied that both Google.CN and Baidu only have indexed a third of the social networking sites’ content and left out the social profiles. These partial social networking sites’ contents, unfortunately, are insufficient enough to build a strong machine-based semantic indicator for the search engines to rank a site.
China’s social networking sites cannot impact ranking
Furthermore, in China, only contents in Sino Weibo might have an impact to create a social signal and influence the search engines. Nonetheless, as far as I know, if you hope to use Sina Weibo content for backlinks to your site, it has set up “302 Redirect” for its short URLs.
Hence, I don’t think the conventional “link juice passing” applies here.
So, my conclusion is: the content on China's social networking sites is not sufficient enough for making a strong semantic relevancy that impacts your ranking on search engines. Sina Weibo looks like is the only media that will be included in the SERP. It does not boost your rank but may bring you better popularity. You may also want to use Baidu proprietary media content to get into the SERP.
As for the 'Pseudo Organic' SERPs, whether it is an obstacle or a shortcut for SEO in China, I leave that for you to decide.
In case you missed it, here's part one of the 'missing manual' of search marketing in China.